Moon dreams: Prairie Village woman had ‘right stuff’ to go to space when US wasn’t ready

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. -- She really wanted to be in the pep club at Wyandotte High School. But Sarah Ratley didn't make the cut, so she decided to try something completely different.

"High school, I was more or less or a nerd," Ratley remembers.

Sarah Ratley

But when she shifted gears to volunteer for the Civil Air Patrol, she was hooked. She did clerical work in return for rides in planes during training exercises.

"Once I flew in the back of the T-6, I decided I'm going to do this myself," she said.

And she did. Flying lessons led to a pilots license at 16. By the time Ratley was 18, she was involved in cross-country powder puff racing, all with the financial support of her father.

"He believed that girls should be equal with the boys," Ratley recalled. "Do anything they wanted and follow their dreams."

Ratley followed hers, continuing to fly in college and early in her work career, and became a member of the 99's, a flying women's organization.

Sarah Ratley

Through her involvement, she began to hear rumors that a secret women's astronaut testing program was forming. And although she had never dreamed of being an astronaut, when she got the call to consider being a part of the program, she jumped.

"They tracked me down at the beauty shop on a Saturday and said, 'Can you be in Albuquerque Monday?' I figured why not?" she said.

Rumor was reality. Ratley, in her early twenties, was part of a privately funded research project. One of 24 women selected to be tested physically and mentally to see if they had "the right stuff" to become the first female astronauts.

It was tough, but Ratley survived and became one of the so-called "Mercury 13." Next stop Pensacola, Florida, for jet training and more testing -- that is, until a telegram arrived before she could go.

"Everything got canceled," she said.

And the U.S. would lose another space race: the gender space race. The Soviet Union would put the first female in space, and it would be 1983 before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space aboard the 7th shuttle mission.

Sarah Ratley

But the Mercury 13 helped pave the way. And when Eileen Collins became the first female pilot of a shuttle mission, she invited the Mercury 13 to the launch.

Ratley was one of 10 who could make it and remembers the thrill of seeing Collins lift-off.

"When Eileen Collins went up, we felt our efforts had not been in vain," Ratley said.

Vindicated in many ways, but still disappointed. Supporters of the Mercury 13 believe male astronauts and politicians weren't ready for women in space back in the early 60's.

But Ratley isn't bitter.

"Everyone has the right stuff," she said. "It's not the outside packaging that counts."

Now 84 years old and living in Prairie Village, Ratley speaks to young women and reminds them that although she fell short of her dream to walk on the moon or in space, they shouldn't give up.

"You won't always succeed, but keep following and keep trying," she urges them. "Do not give up!"

She hasn't. Ratley said if NASA calls and needs an older woman to go into space for experiments, she's ready for lift off. She isn't giving up either!